“The Little Rascals” meets “The Little Fugitive” in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” a loose, endearing followup to “Tangerine” and another deep dive into impoverished America from the inside out. Baker has staked his filmmaking career on coaching vivid performances from non-traditional actors, and “The Florida Project” features a six-year-old girl in a freeflowing narrative and largely inhabits the limitations of her perspective, with mostly winning results.
Where “Tangerine” took place across the across the busy streets of Los Angeles, “The Florida Project” unfolds almost exclusively within the constraints of a budget motel on the outskirts of Orlando. The purple-hued Magic Castle Motel exists in Disney World’s decrepit backyard, and provides a very different sort of playground for the kids who live in its confines.
These include Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the hyperactive child of 22-year-old Halley (Bria Vinaite), an unemployed single mother with bright-green hair who spends most of her time dodging rent deadlines from the motel’s patriarchal manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, the first name actor to surface in Baker’s typically microbudget filmography). Halley’s reckless lifestyle is business as usual for Halley, who spends most of her time running around the parking lot and the surrounding grassy areas with her next-door pals Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). Jancey lives with her doting grandmother, while Jancey’s mom (Mela Murder) works a waitress gig nearby and provides Halley with only her real adult friendship.
Like the lively transgender women in “Tangerine,” Halley’s a combustible presence who roams town looking for quick-cash opportunities wherever she can, but “The Florida Project largely belongs to its young stars. Working within a formula established by the 1953 masterpiece “Little Fugitive,” in which a young child roams Coney Island on his own, Baker uses his measured neorealist style to turns the grimy setting into a sun-soaked wonderland in which the children relate to their surroundings as an ongoing game.
Cinematographer Alexis Zabé captures each scene in a rich 35mm palette that’s a far cry from the iPhone footage of “Tangerine,” using the bright, elegant colors of the motel, 99 cent stores, and an exuberant ice cream shop to create a storybook feel. Moonee and her friends roam on their own, and while they’re always on the verge of causing a ruckus — shutting down electricity to the building one day, invading an abandoned crack den the next — Baker frames their exploits as an ongoing series of wacky vignettes that wouldn’t look out of place in “The Little Rascals.” (The vulgarity’s another story, though.)
This is Baker’s filmmaking ingenuity in a nutshell: He imports marginalized circumstances into breezy, entertaining formulas where you’d least expect them. “The Florida Project” lacks the narrative clarity of his earlier movies, but as it takes time developing a self-contained world, it also contains far more complex textures.
Unlike the day-long adventures of “Tangerine,” this scrappy companion piece spends most of its running time foregrounding its extraordinary performances. Prince is the obvious discovery, a petite ball of energy whose shrieking delivery risks shrill extremes, but it’s clear from her mother’s destructive after-hours behavior that the young actress’ performance has been designed to reflect the reverberations of the adult world around her.
While almost nothing happens in “The Florida Project,” so much is at stake. There’s nothing sustainable about Moonee’s life within the clutches of her mother’s slapdash lifestyle, and even in the lightest scenes, there’s a lingering possibility that the whole situation might come crashing down. When the kids suddenly create a disastrous event halfway through, Baker doesn’t overplay the moment, instead focusing on how it wakes up the other adults in the motel to Halley’s dangerous behavior even as her daughter maintains her carefree existence.
As with “Tangerine,” Baker shifts between multiple overlapping storylines before bringing them together in the dynamic finale. Dafoe’s Bobby epitomizes the moral conundrum at the heart of the movie, as he continually hassles Halley about her lifestyle even as he falls into the role of de facto father figure for her daughter. While his own backstory could have used some bulk, that’s also true for Halley because the plot is largely limited to Moonee’s understanding of it.
Baker’s camera captures Mooney’s perspective with a fluidity worthy of the Dardenne brothers. Many shots were engineered to keep the story within her framework, including a devastating scene in which a man bursts into the bathroom while Moonee’s taking a bath. As her mother pulls him away, the camera stays with the young girl’s confused expression. It’s hard to tell if she’s frustrated, despondent, or simply resigned. By not giving the character dialogue to express her thoughts, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch make “The Florida Project” a fascinating exploration of child psychology.
Nowhere does this become more clear than in the abrupt finale, which takes the movie out of its gritty setting and into a zippy sequence that may or may not be fantasy. It follows a devastating moment, and it brings the contrast of two contradictory worlds into sharp focus. (Those who recall “Escape From Tomorrow,” a black-and-white comedy shot guerrilla-style on real Disney World rides, will notice some reverberations of that approach here.)
Using its setting on the outskirts of a dream factory, “The Florida Project” turns the metaphorical possibilities into a literal idea. (Of note: The Florida Project was also Walt Disney’s code name for Disney World development, back when he was buying Florida swamp land at rock-bottom prices.) Above all, the movie suggests that the magical nature of childhood can make do with even the most uncomfortable circumstances. Despite the undercurrent of tragedy, Baker empathizes with Moonee’s ability to seek a life she can maintain on her own terms.
Baker’s oeuvre has found many variations on the theme of survival in lower-class America: From the hustling Chinese deliveryman of “Take Out,” to the aggressive street salesman in “Prince of Broadway” and the porn star in “Starlet,” his characters are defiant, rousing figures no matter the limitations imposed on them.
Little by little, he has crafted an alternative narrative to American cinema: It’s yet to permeate the zeitgeist, but he’s already found appreciative audiences overseas. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight, “The Florida Project” screened for a roomful of eager U.S. buyers, suggesting that while few American directors make movies like Baker, plenty of people want to see more of them. “The Florida Project” further cements Baker’s status as one of the most innovative American directors working today, but he’s also an essential advocate for the stories this country often doesn’t get to see.
“The Florida Project” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight. It is currently seeking distribution.